The Temptation story
MARK 1: 12-15
On this first Sunday of Lent we continue reading Mark’s fast-moving Gospel. We encounter Jesus coming out of his baptism full of the Holy Spirit. He had just seen “the heavens torn apart” (Mk 1:10) and the Spirit, like a dove descend and proclaim “You are my son the Beloved; my favour rests on you” (Mk1:11).
The narrative continues “Immediately afterwards…” (Mk 1:12). Jesus is given no time to bask in the glow of his baptism, to ponder the words of the Holy Spirit, even to ponder his earthly mission of inaugurating his father’s Kingdom, that of the Good News.
We are told “the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan” (Mk 1:12). The same Spirit that descended so gently upon Jesus at his baptism “like a dove” (Mk 1:10) now abruptly propels him into the wilderness.
The implication is that Jesus’ baptism was preparation for Kingdom Ministry. In baptism we receive the Holy Spirit and are made new. For us it is cleansing water, a repentance baptism. For Jesus there was no need for cleansing; He was without sin. He received the Holy Spirit and by the same Spirit was now directed into the wilderness.
Where and what is the wilderness? Tradition fixed it at a location near Jericho, a desolate and precipitous place along the western shore of the Dead Sea. In another sense it is described as an experience of desolation, a dry desert, a solitary unknown place so forlorn, where God seems unreachable and distant.
It is also a place of testing, of encountering God in our darkest moments of strengthening, spiritual deepening, growth and maturity and preparation for the journey ahead.
It is a faith-challenging experience where one is forced to confront one’s inner self, with humility and willingness to commit to the self- transformation that can only result from an encounter with God.
Mark tells us that Jesus’ wilderness experience lasted “for forty days” (Mk 1:12). Forty days to the Israelites is a significant and symbolic number. Rain fell for forty days and forty nights in the story of Noah and the ark. Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai when receiving the Ten Commandments from God. The Israelites came out of slavery and wandered in the wilderness for forty years and now Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness for forty days and we have forty days of Lent.
The strong possibility is that the number forty is associated with birth, rebirth, renewal, or of finding new life in the midst of our circumstances. Our consolation is that Jesus overcame Satan in the wilderness, thereby giving us the assurance of victory, of birth, rebirth and /or transformation through the experiences of wilderness we often encounter in our lives.
Mark does not describe the specific temptations Jesus faced and overcame in the wilderness but we know that Jesus was tempted three times; in body, soul and Spirit (1) To make bread from stones (2) To throw Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple and (3) To worship Satan.
Mark states that in the wilderness Jesus was not alone: “He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him” (Mk 1:13). This picture contrasts Jesus’ wilderness, a desolate place with wild beasts where He won victory over Satan, with the beautiful Garden of Eden where Satan won the victory over the first Adam. We too are not alone in our wilderness for we have the Holy Spirit and the angels to strengthen and assure us.
Tested and strengthened by the Spirit, Jesus began His ministry in Galilee, preaching the gospel of the Good News that God had fulfilled His promises to Israel by sending the Messiah, the Anointed One, to save His people. His message, “the time has come…and the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Good News” (Mk 1:14–15).
John, now imprisoned, had fulfilled his ministry of preparing the way for Jesus through a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. His message of repentance was now over and it was time for Jesus’s message to begin.
Their messages were not identical. John preached about a time to come; Jesus preached that the time had come; and while John preached a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God was at hand. The promised Messiah had arrived and the condition for salvation was now through belief and faith in the Messiah.
The Gospel Meditations for February are by June Renie, a retired law librarian and a graduate of the Catholic Bible Institute. She is an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist at St Anthony’s parish in Petit Valley.